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How will Jalen Reagor’s return affect Travis Fulgham?

The Eagles already have one good wide receiver and might be getting a second one. This has literally never happened.

Philadelphia Eagles v Washington Football Team Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Ah yes, the biggest problem the Eagles’ offense has faced this season: how will they balance the targets between their two primary pass-catchers, their most dangerous downfield weapons? First-round rookie and walking big play Jalen Reagor, and 2019 sixth-round practice squad journeyman Travis Fulgham. Just as we all expected.

Even in the summer when things looked rosy, there were unanswered questions about the Eagles’ pass-catching corps. They were expected to base out of 12 personnel, as per usual. Was this the year Dallas Goedert fully emerged over Zach Ertz, or would Ertz come out with something to prove after extension negotiations fell fruitless? They were expected to put Reagor and veteran DeSean Jackson on the field — would they finally get a downfield passing game from that pairing? Was Greg Ward going to be the starting slot, and if so, how many snaps would that entail? What in tarnation was J.J. Arcega-Whiteside up to? Was Alshon Jeffery ever going to see the field?

Immediately, injuries knocked the Eagles’ WR corps back to where it’s always been: scraping the bottom of the barrel for practice-squaders, shrugging hopelessly at another set of injured veterans. Jackson, Jeffery, Goedert and Reagor were all unavailable three short weeks into the season, leaving Zach Ertz the lone starter among Ward, rookie fifth-rounder John Hightower, and the eventual phenom Fulgham.

A phenom indeed: Fulgham’s pace on a 16-game season looks like that of a bonafide WR1. Over the last four weeks, he has 350 receiving yards and 3 TDs — no other WR in the NFL has matched those numbers. He’s currently ninth among all receivers in yards/route run at 2.51 and is converting catches into first downs at a better click than any WR in the league. Were a healthy Reagor producing numbers like this, Eagles fans would never again have to harrumph at yet another impressive Justin Jefferson stat line; gaze longingly at CeeDee Lamb’s league-leading slot performance. The pick would have been a success.

As it is, Reagor is undeservedly tossed into a heap of legitimate complaints with the Eagles’ recent drafts. Only two games in to his career, Reagor, the coaching staff, Carson Wentz, and the fanbase all don’t know exactly that of which the rookie is capable yet. His first career catch came in Week 1 against Washington: a 55-yard bomb, the play that was promised, the deep threat to end the Eagles’ drought. But that was his only catch of the day, as he slowed up another another deep incompletion, Wentz missed him on a deep dig, and then threw a pick targeting him on a deep out-breaking pattern.

Not a bad start; not a good one, either. The next week, the Eagles did a 180 on Reagor. He again saw four targets, and caught every single one: two were screen passes, another was a quick-game slant pattern, and the last was a flat route off of jet motion.

These deployments were polar opposites, and indicative of an offense still trying to grasp its identity. Reagor went from the deepest average target of all receivers in Week 1 (32.4 air yards/attempt) to 5 air yards/target in Week 2 — tied for Greg Ward with the lowest figure on Philadelphia’s roster. He grabbed eight snaps from the slot after taking only one in Week 1; his route tree completely changed, focusing on crossing and breaking patterns instead of the free-running verticals the Eagles had prioritized against Washington.

It’s okay that the Eagles experimented with Reagor. He’s a high-quality athlete who didn’t run a very diverse route tree at TCU, so determining his most effective NFL role — field-stretching Z receiver? Route-running separator from the slot? Underneath target hog with YAC ability? — was always going to be a process, made even longer by the shortened NFL offseason. That’s what the Eagles bought when they selected Reagor over the more polished Justin Jefferson; waited on him instead of trading up for CeeDee Lamb: a high-ceiling player with rougher edges.

Losing training camp time was tough for Reagor; losing five weeks’ worth of snaps was even worse. In that time, the Eagles have hunted for a passing game identity without Reagor, and have found one with some success. They’ve dialed down the under-center play-action dropbacks and employed more 11 personnel in Goedert’s, and then Ertz’s absences. They’ve forsaken the deep vertical passing game, save for the occasional John Hightower prayer, in favor of intermediate breaking patterns that Wentz can throw with timing, to a spot, and between zones. This is how a player like Fulgham has become so successful for Philadelphia: on timing-based, out-breaking and crossing patterns that don’t leave Wentz in the pocket for too long, but require his trust in the receiver’s timely win with leverage.

Travis Fulgham’s route tree in Week 4 (v. Pittsburgh)
NFL Next Gen Stats
Travis Fulgham’s route tree in Week 5 (v. Baltimore)
NFL Next Gen Stats
Travis Fulgham’s route tree in Week 6 (v. New York)
NFL Next Gen Stats

When the Eagles look to reintegrate Reagor, the unknown of his skillset and role brush up against the emergence of Fulgham as the Eagles’ WR1 during the last three weeks — three weeks in which their offense has finally looked semi-functional. Reagor has the draft pedigree of a WR1; Fulgham has the production. Who takes on that role now?

The answer depends on a lot of things: who Wentz targets, how defenses respond to both players, and how the offensive line and protection hold up. While we can’t predict most of that, we can predict how Reagor will be deployed. If you look at his route trees in Week 1 and Week 2, it’s clear that his Week 2 deployment overlaps with Fulgham’s tree far more than his Week 1 usage did. Throw in the fact that the Eagles have not gotten good play out of John Hightower and are absent DeSean Jackson as he enjoys yet another tenure on injured reserve, and the Eagles are likely going to turn Reagor back into the deep threat they styled him in Week 1. Doing so allows Fulgham to remain in the “X-receiver” role in which he has prospered to this point, and even potentially assisting his game as Reagor’s deep patterns draw safety attention away from him.

The Eagles will shove neither of their promising young receivers into pigeonholes, and there will be overlap. Reagor’s return will infringe upon the screen looks Fulgham has received, the quick slants in short yardage situations that have previously featured Ward and Hightower. Fulgham is an X-receiver in build and play-style, but has taken a larger percentage of snaps from the slot than Reagor ever has — and he’ll continue to take those snaps to get into his out-breaking patterns, continue to run vertical routes to capitalize on his deep ball ability.

I’d expect Fulgham to remain the primary target-getter, while Reagor becomes the more explosive option, both before and after the catch. But more than anything else, I expect the Eagles to continue experimenting. They have two healthy, young, exciting, starting-caliber wide receivers on the roster for Sunday Night against Dallas — that literally has not happened in Doug Pederson’s head coaching career. As such, they will continue the uncertain alchemy of putting these unknowns in different roles, with a focus on building their chemistry with Carson Wentz and finding more space in what has always been a laborious passing game. For once in the Eagles’ wide receiver room, they might have a good problem instead of a bad one.